Over the past few painful days—as neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, as a domestic terrorist allegedly murdered a brave young woman, as the president refused to condemn the radical right, and as the nation desperately tried to make sense of these bitter events—I kept thinking back to a sunny Sunday afternoon in 1997: 14 years old, I lay on my bed in the center of Munich and tried to stay focused on playing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as 5,000 neo-Nazis marched past my window.
For decades, Germany had convinced itself that responsibility for the Third Reich rested with a small number of people. Adolf Hitler, so the story went, was bad. So were a handful of his closest political allies and a few thousand of his most elite soldiers. But most Germans didn’t know about the crimes committed in their name. They had simply done their duty. Even when this story started to be challenged, one article of faith remained sacrosanct: While the SS had committed terrible war crimes, the ordinary soldiers of the Wehrmacht were blameless.
But that year, a highly contested exhibition curated by a consortium of historians at the Hamburg Institute for Social Research started touring Germany. For the first time, it questioned this historical nonsense in a highly public manner. But though it chronicled the Wehrmacht’s complicity in the Holocaust in one lurid photograph after another, the neo-Nazis marching through the center of town were determined to glorify their ancestors. “Our Soldiers Weren’t Criminals,” one banner I spotted out of my window announced. “Glory and Honor be to the Wehrmacht!” another demanded. “Grandpa was alright!” a third declared.
With their shaved heads and their baseball bats, their leather jackets and their combat boots, the neo-Nazis gave unvarnished expression to racist hate and fascist nostalgia. But they could count on plenty of allies in politics and the mainstream media. Germany’s leading newspaper called the exhibition “a testament to Germany’s rampant obsession with guilt.” A local paper warned of “a moral war of annihilation against the German people.” Bavaria’s minister of culture called for a boycott of the exhibition.
Though I pretended to be nonchalant, the whole spectacle left me deeply unsettled. My grandparents had lost most of their families in the Holocaust. They themselves had only survived by sheer dumb luck. Even before I understood much about politics, I somehow intuited that my two identities—German and Jewish—were deeply at odds with each other. That afternoon, it felt as though they would forever remain irreconcilable.
Listen to the Good Fight podcast:
In the days after the march, some voices on the left claimed that those neo-Nazis represented the true Germany. Finally, they proclaimed, strangely jubilant, the mask had fallen off. We knew what the country was really like.
I understood the sentiment. And yet, even then, I rejected their conclusion as absurd. After all, just as Germany’s demons had become visible to all, so had its better angels: There were the thousands upon thousands of counterprotestors who stood up to the Nazis. There were the politicians who had loudly supported the exhibition. And there were the millions of ordinary Germans whose faces burned with anger, or fell with sadness, when they watched the evening news that night.
It is obvious why I have been thinking about all of this over the past days: Like Germany in the 1990s, America is slowly, fitfully trying to reckon with its history. Like in Germany in the 1990s, there are plenty of politicians who—out of conviction or electoral calculation or a mix of both—falsify history and trample over the feelings of victims’ descendants. And like in Germany in the 1990s, scores of well-meaning people have become convinced that these moral failings define the nation, that they represent the true America.
But if I did not believe that those neo-Nazis marching past my window got to define Germany back in 1997, I doubly refuse to believe that those neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville get to define the country I have come to call my home today.
The rise of the far-right is harrowing to watch. The words and actions of the president are a disgrace. The collusion of Breitbart and Fox News, of the governor of Kentucky and of all three Republican Senate candidates in Alabama, is depraved. All of these are a part of what America is. Anybody who feigns surprise at the racist rot in our midst has been wilfully blind.
And yet, we should not afford the racists and the bigots the great satisfaction of defining our country. Over the weekend, there were thousands upon thousands of counterprotestors in Charlottesville. Over the past days, there have been dozens of spontaneous rallies of solidarity all around the country. That, too, is America.
With the notable exception of the president, virtually every senior politician is on the record as condemning racism and bigotry in the strongest terms. Barack Obama’s tweet about Charlottesville is now the most liked in Twitter’s history. From George H.W. Bush to George W. Bush, and from Justin Amash to John McCain, Republican politicians of all stripes have rebuked the president. That, too, is America.
Even people who have a strong incentive to stay on the sidelines have spoken up because they found it intolerable to stay silent: The CEOs of Merck and of Intel, of Campbell’s and of 3M, resigned from Trump’s economic council. The chief of staff of the U.S Army and the commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps subtweeted the commander in chief. That, too, is America.
And though racial resentment remains a frighteningly potent force in 2017, the American mainstream remains very, very far from Donald Trump. According to the Pew Research Center, a clear majority of Americans believes that “having an increasing number of people of many different races, ethnic groups and nationalities in our country makes it a better place to live.” (Fewer than half as many Germans share this belief.) Even when they are asked about the likely effects of whites becoming a minority, 3 out of every 4 respondents state that “Americans will learn more from one another and be enriched by exposure to different cultures.” That, too, is America.
White nationalists are desperate to define the nation in their own terms. In their minds, anybody who is sufficiently Aryan and sufficiently right-wing gets to be a real American. Everybody else is a subhuman or a race traitor.
This is one of the many reasons why authoritarian populists so often make common cause with racists. Although not all populists are driven by racism, both groups share an exclusionary conception of the nation: All over the world, populist strongmen claim that they, and they alone, represent the true people. As Trump might put it, everybody who supports him is a real American, and anybody who opposes him is an enemy of the American people.
But while populists are wedded to a view of the world in which everything is (in some cases, quite literally) black and white, the defenders of liberal, multiethnic democracy should insist that things are more complicated than that. Americans are not united by one ethnicity or by one political outlook. And though Trump, David Duke, and Richard Spencer might wish otherwise, it is patently untrue that all real Americans are proponents of white supremacy.
So, yes, it is impossible to understand the United States without opening our eyes to the legacy of slavery or the widespread complicity with racism. Yes, I understand why so many people are sick of the historical amnesia in our country and have seen all of their worst fears about the country confirmed over recent days. Yet I refuse to let the ideological fringe that has recently captured the White House, much less the violent fringe who marched in the streets of Charlottesville, define who we are.